A battle for life in Argentinean Patagonia

by Débora Gastal

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Fracking field with lake behind. In Northern Patagonia, nature fights for space with the fossil fuels industry. Photo credit: Débora Gastal / 350.org

In the region of Neuquén, in Argentina, the astonishing landscape of Northern Patagonia is suddenly and recurrently disrupted by the fossil fuels industry. The endless plain is cut by worm-like roads and countless fracking towers, as its underground hides one of the biggest oil and gas reserves in Latin America: Vaca Muerta.

Around 925 million barrels of oil equivalent are stored 3.000 meters deep in an area of about 30.000 square kilometers between the provinces of Neuquén, Río Negro, La Pampa and Mendoza.

Aerial photo of Vaca Muerta, showing the many roads and fracking wells that snip the region. Photo credit: Marcel Ricardo Ribeiro/ COESUS Latinoamérica

I joined 350.org Latin America’s team in a trip to this region in early December 2016, where we stood in solidarity with the groups who are fighting against fracking — and, ultimately, for life — there. Their pain for the damages that the fossil fuels industry is causing to their land, their animals and their culture is physically felt: you cry, not only because their fight is hard and the reality is unjust. You cry because your eyes will burn with the poor quality of the air in some areas and because your mouth will be dry and you can’t even trust the water.

The estimation is that there is around 1100 fracking wells being currently explored in Argentina. Many of them sticked right in the middle of productive areas. It is from Northern Patagonia that more than 90% of the production of apples and pears in Argentina comes.

Few meters separe the fracking drilling site from an apple’s plantation in Allen. Photo credit: Débora Gastal / 350.org

Sebástián Hernández is the president of the Association of Fruit Farmers of Allen, a city of the Province of Río Negro and 30 km far from Neuquén. He tells that the drilling not only contaminates the water, but has other side effects, as the noise that disturbs people and animals and the strong lights that in the night attract insects that damage the fruits. The activity of cultivating apples and pears is centenary in Northern Patagonia, and people now see their livelihood being taken by huge multinationals.

But fracking is not only wrecking the regional economy. It is also ruining an entire culture. Centenary Mapuche communities are suffering with their ancestral lands being invaded by trucks, pipes and fracking machines. Traditionally relying on horses, cows and sheep breeding, they see their animals dying by drinking from rivers and struggle with not having resources for buying mineral water everyday for their own consumption.

When we visited the locality of Rincón de los Sauces, 240 km far away from Neuquén, the Mapuche community of Newen Kura was being evicted. José Avila Villawal, member of the community, explains that it is not only a question of loosing a piece of land. It is about belonging and about fighting for the most basic right: life.

When fracking arrives, environmental, social and economic degradation come with it. That’s why people everywhere in the world are fighting to stop this industry.

An example of the destruction is the little town of Añelo, 105 km far from Neuquén. Since Chevron arrived to the region, in 2013, its population doubled. But more people didn’t bring more development. Indeed, the exact opposite: the city now faces an increase in accidents and diseases due to the high traffic of trucks and the terrible air and water conditions brought by the fracking industry. And there’s not even one hospital in the town, just a small room with basic amenities.

In Añelo’s unpaved roads, its easier to find wholes than people. Photo credit: Marcel Ricardo Ribeiro / COESUS Latinoamerica

José Chandia was the first city’s councilor in Latin America to propose a law to forbid fracking in a local level. Since 2012, the use of this technique is banned in Cinco Saltos, a city 20 km far from Neuquén. He explains that approving the law is not the complete solution. Awareness and mobilization are essential for winning the fight.

His examples is being replicated in many places, in Argentina and abroad. In Brazil, for example, more than 200 cities already banned fracking in their territories, with the hope that this technique will never really start to be used in the country — despite the carelessness of the federal government.

Besides it’s local impacts, fracking intensively collaborates to global warming as it releases large quantities of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases. We must freeze it!

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350 is a global org that's inspiring the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis. This blog is a look behind the scenes at how we do that.

350 is a global org that's inspiring the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis. This blog is a look behind the scenes at how we do that.